Friday, November 11, 2011

Pick your battles (or at least your tools)

Yesterday I rode a horse for the first time in a year and a half. It was a strange sensation, being on the back of an animal again, but at the same time it somehow felt like being home again. I guess this is where most of us start our love affair with horses, so it is always a joy to be that in that close contact. Little Love, of course, was as patient as always with my crooked seat and clumsy mount (and dismount). I gradually stopped riding after learning about some of the studies done on the effects of carrying a human for extended periods of time on the horse's back. This was a catalyst toward my eventual stopping completely, but mainly I think I really stopped when riding began to feel more like exploitation. I was riding a couple of different horses during this time - one an old three day eventer who had been to hell and back but had luckily found a kind owner to spend her last years with, and the other a young, rather large horse who moved as if he were a big, old shell with a little tiny pony hiding inside. While both these horses were also being handled or ridden by other people, they were strongly responding to the transition I was going through from goal-oriented (wannabe) dressage rider to a kinder, more thoughtful horse lover looking for a more cooperative relationship with horses. Both of them became reluctant to be ridden and would even shut down and refuse to move at times when I was on them. I suspect this was the first time either of them had been given a chance to exercise an opinion, and they were doing just that! :-) I think this is exactly the lesson I needed at the time, and through them I learned that I do not want to exploit a horse who does not want to be ridden. And that it is completely possible to have a very different but very fulfilling relationship without riding.

But through Little Love, I am learning a new lesson - and one that I think I am ready for now: that all riding is not exploitation and sometimes it can be a gift to the horse to allow them to move in the way they want to with us. As humans, we are limited in our capacity to move on the ground at the speeds the horse would sometimes like. Sometimes, the horse just wants to go, and if riding can give them that, let's help them to achieve it. So, I have taken my first steps to get my seat back into shape to be able to go on those fun rides with Little Love. Our start was probably boring for her, but she is always a patient and kind teacher. And by the way, I also realized the value of taking some time off, because I think in many ways my seat was better than it was when I stopped riding! :-)

Today I wanted to do some long reining, but I got a distinct message from Little Love when I took her from the paddock that she wasn't up for it. So we agreed already then that we would go for a long walk and do some trot together on the road. 

It was nice to see that Little Love is finding places in her muddy paddock where she is comfortable rolling, but that also means that she was super muddy when I took her out. Because Lilo is, to say the least, not a fan of extensive brushing, we try to keep it to a minimum whenever we can. But she was so caked in mud today on one side that my conscience wouldn't allow me to leave her that dirty - especially because I know Marjo is coming to spend time with her tomorrow, and I didn't want to leave her to deal with the mud either. So I took out the grooming mitt and brush and set to work. And true to her normal ways, Little Love started to get angry with me, showing me her teeth, and grabbing the lead rope angrily. At this point in our relationship, I am 99.9% sure she wouldn't bite me, but it also pains me to do something to her that makes her so frustrated. What to do? Then I thought of this hair-type brush we have that K sometimes uses to massage Lilo. It's not a conventional horse brush - except maybe for detangling the mane - but, I though, why not give it a try? So I took it out and set back to work. I had to use the brush quite roughly to get the caked mud off, but lo and behold, Lilo was totally fine with this! We did quite an extensive grooming session, and she stood totally calmly and even blew out her nose and licked and chewed. In fact, I almost felt that she was enjoying the massage / mud removal! :-) It just made me think, in my previous experiences with horses who don't like brushing–and there are many of them if you start to pay attention–I have either (a) ignored the horse's wishes and simply proceeded despite the show of displeasure (gotta be the boss) or (b) trained the horse to tolerate the activity. But why? Why have I never before thought "outside the box" and tried to find a new solution that would be acceptable to us both? I myself have fairly curly hair, and I know there are certain brushes I cannot use because they hurt or actually damage my hair. I also love to have my head scratched, but the same activity somewhere else tickles me in an annoying way. Why don't I give horses the chance to have similar opinions - why do they always on some level need to conform to what I want to do and the way I want to do it?

So with a clean horse, I set out on a walk. I have been a bit under the weather for the last month or so, so I haven't been as adventurous with Little Love as I was previously in the fall. I also haven't been able to do any real exercise during this time, so I have gotten quite out of shape. But I'm doing well now, and today I decided was the day we get back into the groove and have some fun with Lilo. What a great day we had! We ran together, side by side, and she was so understanding that I couldn't do very long stretches and totally adjusted her pace to match what I was capable of. (I cannot wait to get back into better shape, because I haven't experienced anything in a long time that I love as much as running with this horse! :-) ) I also got to experience some of what K has written about lately: Little Love is asking to go onto the forest trails on our walks! Our barn is situated in the middle of a newly designated national park, so I'm not always 100% sure if we are allowed to go on the trails marked in green and white as "luontopolku" ("nature trail" in Finnish), but I guess until someone tells us differently, we're going to check them out. :-) Today we went on a completely new trail quite deep into the forest. Little Love was so amazingly calm and seemed to be actually enjoying the trees surrounding her. Luckily, this particular trail is an old road, so it's quite wide - a really good one for us to practice on before we are able to go into the thicker growth on narrower trails. Coming out, we were met with a tractor headed to haul some cut trees out of a field. The tractor driver was standing next to his machine, and I could see in his eyes that he was worried they would scare the horse. I walked by with such pride in the calm black mare who didn't even bat an eye at his tractor with the weird looking apparatus swinging on the back.

A couple of tough uphill runs, and we were back at the barn. Thanks Little Love for such an amazing day! :-)

-- Melissa


  1. Wow, Melissa, what a insightful and lovely post today! I liked your analogy about the brushing, it's so true that WE have our preferences ( remember how much brushing our hair hurt when we were little?) about even the slightest things, like hair brushing... or massage, tickling, etc. Yet we expect the horse to tolerate so many "human" things. All of these things we do can be received so much differently if we "listen" first to what our horse is telling us. Watch for signs of dislike or discomfort. I loved your use of the word exploitation, that says it all, doesn't it?

  2. OMG I had tears in my eyes reading this! Im in Switzerland at the moment and miss my beautiful girl. Am so happy she is in good hands with my amazingly insightful friends. Thank you Melissa for being in my life and being so amazing, I love you dearly.

  3. Shelby, when I was working with Little Love and also when I wrote this, I was thinking exactly of how much it hurt when my mom brushed my hair when I was a little girl! Glad you could relate so well to how I was feeling. :-)

    Love you too, K! And thanks for sharing your beautiful girl with me.

    -- Melissa

  4. I have to figure out how to post comments under my own name! Since we are sharing the login to the blog, it looks like you just replied to yourself :-) ha ha